The following story appears in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 14.
Remember Been Trill? Back in 2013, Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders (aka JJJJound), Matthew Williams, and Florencia G terrorized the internet with their hashtag-splattered mixtapes and T-shirts. A crew of DJs, designers, creative directors and influencer types, the five worked for Kanye West’s DONDA collective in various capacities and leveraged their insider connections to get Been Trill all over the internet. As the unofficially official sixth member of Been Trill, Kanye was regularly seen in their gear, and actually included the brand in his first A.P.C. collab. Beyonce even wore it on occasion.
Been Trill’s clothing was basic, but often expensive — at the height of the madness, they even made $100 shoelaces — and the group gave very little impression that they took things too seriously. The entire operation seemed like a publicity stunt, or an experiment to see how much money you could make just by having famous friends. Unsurprisingly, controversy and comment wars followed Been Trill everywhere they went, but that didn’t stop trend-hungry streetwear fiends from throwing their entire bank accounts at the brand. Looking back at it, Been Trill was sort of like a proto-Vetements.
The jokes didn’t last forever: Been Trill was essentially sold off to PacSun — the “mall brand” retailer is the last remaining point of purchase for the label today — while the crew have taken the profits to bankroll new ventures. Virgil Abloh started OFF-WHITE and, with the backing of some Italian clothing tycoons, turned it into a highly lucrative label that’s stocked in basically every luxury department store on the planet. Heron Preston launched the HPC Trading Co. web store, and recently debuted his own namesake label at Paris Fashion Week. Saunders, aka JJJJound, still works for Kanye and produces his own products every now and then. Florencia G, meanwhile, is a fitness guru and adidas ambassador.
OFF-WHITE may show in Paris and have multiple flagship stores, but its collections are still very much a work in progress, with gratuitous branding and a vision that is not yet fully formed, as Virgil would attest. Heron’s debut isn’t even available to buy yet, and JJJJound basically makes branded novelties. Where his former Been Trill compatriots are still taking arguable baby steps, Matthew Williams — who was always one of the more low-key members of the crew — has emerged from the ashes of Been Trill with a fully-fledged fashion brand that looks set to become a household name in the not-so-distant future.
Alyx Studio makes clothes for people who love fashion. They’re bold and daring, without being wacky or unwearable. There are leather trousers and chunky hiking boots, oversized tailoring, patent leather, PVC and lots of dazzling bejeweled chains. It’s dying to be seen on a runway, worn by a squad of models stomping up and down some poorly-lit industrial space to a deafening soundtrack of grinding noise.
Matthew’s clearly a big fan of Helmut Lang and Raf Simons, two icons of design, whose work — much like his own — deftly tiptoes around subcultures and aesthetics, remixing them in ways that feel fresh, modern and now. And just like Helmut and Raf, Williams’s clothes would feel relevant in any decade from the 1990s to the 2090s. For Pre-Spring 2017, Alyx clashes fetishistic themes with high-performance biker gear, while previous seasons have referenced skate culture, fine pinstriped tailoring and corpse-painted black metallers. It’s a million miles away from the cheap novelties Been Trill spat out.
Williams spent years working behind the scenes in the fashion industry before launching his own label a few years ago, which now has the backing of Luca Benini, the man behind Italian streetwear institution Slam Jam. Matthew flew around the world doing creative direction for Kanye and Lady Gaga, and spent time in London assisting legendary fashion photographer Nick Knight, who he still works with on Alyx’s campaigns, catalogs and videos. He’s a polite, humble guy with a lazy West Coast drawl and easygoing demeanor. Speaking to him, you’d never guess that he made costumes for Lady Gaga before she got signed, designed the jacket Kanye wore onstage with Daft Punk at the Grammys, and worked on ball gowns with Alexander McQueen shortly before his untimely death.
Alyx is predominantly a womenswear operation, but it has plenty of unisex appeal and many pieces are available in men’s sizes. Williams recently hooked up with Japanese streetwear legend and fragment design founder Hiroshi Fujiwara for a menswear capsule collection, and tells me that more expansive forays into guys’ clothing are on the way. It’s an intimate, family-run operation, named after one of Matthew’s children. His wife, Jennifer, runs the sales side to the business, and her cousin is Matthew’s design assistant. They divide their time between New York and Ferrara in Italy.
I gave Matthew a call from Highsnobiety’s office in Berlin to talk subcultures, life in Italy, fetish gear and those old skate shoes that looked like marshmallows on your feet.
Hi Matt, where abouts are you at the minute?
I’m in Italy, working on production for next season, and then I’m flying back to New York tomorrow morning.
Nice, what’s Ferrara like?
It’s beautiful! It’s a really old city. A lot of the crusades were launched from here, it has a beautiful medieval castle; the whole city has a wall around it. It’s really beautiful.
Really foggy as well, right?
Yes, lots of fog! It’s really foggy right now. The city is below sea level. Actually a hundred years ago people used to go around on boats here — it’s really close to Venice, too.
Sounds kind of inspiring.
Yes, it’s really beautiful. A lot of artists actually lived here, like De Chirico. Andy Warhol had an exhibition here in the ’70s. There’s actually an exhibition right now in Milan about Basquiat and his work, and his relationship with Italy. I think he lived in Italy for a bit, too.
I was just thinking about the collection. This collection is called “Love Chaos,” right? What’s the story behind the name?
Well, Alyx is a brand, it’s one continuous idea, and the collection names are like song titles. Things that I’m thinking about at the time. That particular one came about for two reasons. One, I work a lot with NoLife, he’s a noise artist from New York. He has two songs, one is called “Curate Love” and one’s called “Curate Chaos.” Then also around that time there was a bomb that went off in New York on 23rd Street, which is only two avenues away from where my place is. So it’s this idea of loving the city you’re from, observing the chaos, and seeing how everything is not necessarily good in the world.
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And what’s the one continuous idea of Alyx?
The brand is like my personal monologue. It has hints of things I hate or love, sadness or happiness I feel. They’re just like places of inspiration for me, and it’s down to people to find what they find in it or what it means to them. What it really comes down to is for everybody to just be who they are. Be you, you know what I mean? The clothing is really something that you feel the most like yourself when you’re wearing it. It’s about being you. Come as you are.
You put things that you hate in there?
What sort of stuff?
I have a shirt that says “Anti Racist Action” coming next season. I hate racism.
How did the whole fetish stuff come about?
I was first exposed to it looking at photographs of bondage. Like Araki, with whom I was fortunate enough to work with many years ago. We did a shoot together for Gaga, I think it was in 2009. I think it’s a beautiful art by itself, I just love how it looks visually.
Wow. How was it working with him?
He was really amazing, he kind of makes love to the camera as he’s shooting. He has a person that does a special art of rope tying for him, like special knots. He was really, really free, he was shooting beautiful Polaroids. We all went to his bar after and got drunk with him. He did these amazing paintings while we were at his bar, with the classic Japanese calligraphy pen, and he dipped the brush in whiskey and then in ink, and did some portraits. And then the pictures that he took, he ended up painting over them, which was really beautiful.
[Biker jackets have been en vogue since forever, but rather than doing the same-old Perfecto jacket and leather boots, Alyx has linked with Italian label Spidi to take the speed demon vibes next level. Spidi specializes in high-performance moto-gear that’s been precision-engineered for people who like to go a million miles an hour down perilous, winding roads. The collab is packed with high-tech detailing and looks like the sort of thing Darth Vader would wear on his days off.]
There are fashioned-up versions of Spidi’s moto jackets, pants, gloves and jumpsuits, as well as some absolutely wild boots that look like Matthew has chopped the leg off a cyborg. His team even teched-out some patent leather pumps with what Spidi calls Force Tech Armor. The collab is an explosion of tech details, reinforced body armor and Matrix-meets-Margiela aesthetics. It’s nuts
What about this biker thing you guys have got going on?
My dad rode motorcycles my whole life, that’s just something I’ve grown up with.
You guys are four collections deep now, right?
Five now, actually. Maybe we’ve done five and we’re on our sixth. Can you just check and quote me? (Laughs) It all becomes a blur, because I’m working on the production of our last collection, and at the same time I’m developing a new one, and sometimes I’m shooting with Nick for a collection that’s already out in the stores. It all merges into one for me.
Do you feel like fashion is moving too fast now?
The world is very fast. Before, people didn’t know what was going on everywhere, at every moment. You would buy an object, an item of clothing, and it would be interesting to you for longer because you wouldn’t see everyone else who owned it. You would shop and then go somewhere, to a club, a museum opening, a concert, to actually have an experience of other like-minded people. You would have to speak to them in real life, you would wear your clothes and that’s how you would project yourself in that place. I guess things had longer longevity before people got tired of them.
But now, people don’t have to go to actual events to feel engaged in culture, and there are less places where they need to dress up to go somewhere. People get tired of something quicker if they see it all over Instagram. A hundred photos of an item on Instagram feels a lot bigger than if a hundred people just owned it 10 years ago.
If it would be like that, things would remain cooler for longer. Did you see clothes in that show? Oh no, you weren’t physically there, so you would never experience them until they went into a store. People were so excited to get out of their house and go look at clothing, because that was the only way they could see it. I think that’s all gone. It’s radically changed how people shop, how people consume information, know what they need and what they don’t need.
[What Matthew says reminds me of something Niels, the founder of Belgian concept store Hunting & Collecting, told me. He noticed that whenever he put up a photo of a product on his store’s Instagram, the more likes it got, the less people bought it. Simply double-tapping something on a screen gives you a sense of satisfaction, just like walking out of a store with a bag full of new stuff. Once you’ve told the internet that you like something, the need to spend money on it isn’t as strong. You don’t need to be shopping to have that sort of relationship with a piece of clothing anymore.]
There’s also not a big reason for people to buy stuff at full price anymore, because they just wait for it to go on sale. All manufacturers make you meet minimums, so a lot of the time, especially big brands, they’re overproducing because they have to meet a factory minimum, or they have to keep up with their quota. You end up with so much clothing that people don’t need, but there’s no other way to work in this system.
That’s something I think about too: how much of what I’m making is needed and necessary? Am I making things in an ethical way? What’s the procedure, what materials are used? I’m looking a lot into sustainable fabrics and sustainable supply chains. Not as a poster boy for sustainability or the environment, but as a conscious human being. It’s hard to ignore that there’s loads of shit being made, and people that are just being mindless consumers. I don’t want to be a brand that’s into that.
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So, the theme of the magazine is subcultures. What were the subcultures that you experienced when you were younger?
I was growing up in California. At that time skateboarding was a huge subculture. Everybody who was a skater at my school, people looked at them like they were going to steal something when they went into a store. Other kids’ parents didn’t want them to hang out with us. I think there’s a Santa Cruz shirt that says “Skateboarding is not a crime.” I’m not sure if it was Santa Cruz or not, but it was a real saying. If you were skating a ledge or a loading dock, some rent-a-cop would hassle you, kick you out of the spot. People were so worried about their concrete curbs, and their parking bumpers at gas stations — it was ridiculous!
The designs of the skate shoes, then, it was like the Wild West. Sole Technologies and eS were making wild things; Koston had stuff that looked like Kobe Bryant basketball shoes. Then there were the Osiris D3s that were like chunky marshmallows on your feet. Everybody was much more experimental, because there was no proven technology that said this kind of shoe or clothing was better to skate in, so it gave people room for creativity. Now skate shoes pretty much look the same — everybody does a version of the Janoski.
How do you feel about subcultures now, in 2017?
I think that subcultures still exist now, but in different ways. I’m sure they exist online — like there are kids in Japan that are super into something that someone in Scandinavia is also into, and they talk online and maybe meet up. I’m sure subcultures are around still, like in Berlin. Don’t you see it sometimes? I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff going on in Berlin.
Yeah, Berghain’s got its own culture to it, definitely. You see a lot of that. Everyone’s wearing black the whole time, loads of ’00s-era sportswear. It does feel more like cultural remixing though — it doesn’t feel as intense as it was.
I think Berlin is still a cool place where that exists. That’s why I love Berlin so much. It reminds me of New York when I first went there. You can still exist there without a job. There’s freedom there. When I did my 032c project, they put up posters all around the city to tell Berlin that it was happening! And that was a really viable way of communicating in 2016! [Laughs] I don’t know anywhere else where that works.
I know friends who put on parties and it’s like, if they want to do a party somewhere, they actually have to go to the venue and meet them. You can’t email someone until you’ve met them face-to-face. It’s so old school.
I love that — the city’s kept its charm. In Berghain they don’t allow photos inside, so people have to physically get off their asses and go somewhere to experience it. On a larger level, food culture is sort of like a subculture — people have to travel to go to a restaurant that just sources food from a 10km radius. You have to go to experience it in a small venue. I read that from Hiroshi, in that cool interview...
With SSENSE, right?
Yeah, and also Dries Van Noten, he was just talking about that as well, and when they both said that I was like “You know what? You’re actually right.”
How was it working with Hiroshi?
Oh, really, really cool. I mean, he’s a legend. He’s so talented. It’s so amazing what he’s given to culture over the decades, and how relevant his work has remained. Even now he’s releasing product that’s some of the coolest stuff that comes out. I traveled to Tokyo and sat with him, and we went over the collection, he was just really amazing, talented and had great ideas. He has a great knowledge of so many specific things in fashion and music that he was telling me about, like old stores that existed on St. Mark’s Place, right where my studio was. He was telling me about these old skate brands like Jimmy Z, which had this really cool Velcro waistband. It was like a belt attached to a waistband of a chino that you could, like, Velcro off from the pocket; they were really cool. Something I’ve never heard of, even though they were from California. He was just amazing.
[The Rollercoaster belt is just a small part of Alyx’s collection, but it’s an important one. Matthew took the safety buckle from a rollercoaster and put it on a regular nylon strap, so you can wear it around your jeans. It’s a regular feature in Alyx collections, has been spotted on A$AP Rocky on multiple occasions, and sells out in a heartbeat every time it drops. It hits the magic formula for a banging statement piece — it looks weird but at the same time familiar, it’s got a dope concept behind it, and it’s easy to wear. It’s one of those key pieces that personify Alyx’s aesthetic.]
How did the Rollercoaster belt come about?
I was just taking my kids to Six Flags Magic Mountain, and we were just going on a roller coaster ride, and I looked at the belt that I was strapped in to. I was like “this thing is fucking cool!” I contacted the brand and asked if they would like to work with me to brand some of the hardware that they make, and that I wanted to use it in fashion. They were open to it, so that’s basically it.
It’s not made by a fashion company, so it has a soul to it. It wasn’t created to be used on a garment. That’s why uniforms are so beautiful. Uniforms are such a huge source of inspiration. They are clothing, but they’re also created for utilitarian purpose. Like the Rollercoaster belt’s buckle. That thing has to hold you in when you’re going a hundred miles an hour upside down, when there’s crazy g-force, so it’s got a mechanism that won’t unlock upside down or when it’s being pulled apart — so people don’t fall out of a roller coaster! It’s way over-designed for a simple belt.
It has all that detail that you’d never see or know about with your naked eye. It gives it something. It’s like when Stanley Kubrick used to fill all the cupboards and dressers in his films with clothes, in the scenes when people never opened them. He saw that it actually does give something to the scene that’s being shot. I really believe that. I believe in all those details that I do for myself that nobody will ever know, except for me and my team, and even my team might not know some of them. You need that amount of detail when you’re trying to give soul to a product.
Pick up a copy of Highsnobiety issue 14 here.